Cognitive Bias, Functional Fixedness, And Connecting Creatively Into The Future

In one of his famous quotes, Steve Jobs said “you can’t connect the dots looking forward…” But in times of turbulence, chaos and great change, it may be exactly what we need to do…

Especially when we live in a time when looking back for extended periods of time can be devastating. Leading to longer and longer lapses and eventual paralysis of action as uncertainty overwhelms like a wet, heavy blanket. Often leaving us vulnerable to the velocity and impact of the unforeseen. One which is incessantly hurtling out at us from the turbulence and chaos of an unknown future.

Often leaving us blind to the dots and connections that are necessary for us to push forward into this future in a relevant and significant manner…

The problem facing us and our organizations is that these dots are neither easily accessed nor seen. And the less we engage in divergent, creative and innovative thinking, the more inclined we are to find ourselves enveloped in the “functional fixedness” that pull us farther and farther away from the connections and thinking we will need to lead us more effectively forward into and through today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world.

According to Wikipedia, “functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that limits a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used.” For which Wikipedia adds that “Karl Duncker defined functional fixedness as being a “mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem.” “This “block” limits the ability of an individual to use components given to them to complete a task, as they cannot move past the original purpose of those components.”

The interesting point that Wikipedia provides in concern to “functional fixedness” is that “when tested, 5 year old children show no signs of functional fixedness.  However, by age 7, children have acquired the tendency to treat the originally intended purpose of an object as special.” (Which makes one wonder, much like the decrease in creativity that has been on the rise since 1990 in elementary school children, if “functional fixedness” is a result of that same system)

However, the more we engage in creative endeavors that extend our thinking beyond conventional considerations, the more we push ourselves past the cognitive bias’ associated with “functional fixedness” and the more we extend ourselves into this kind of thinking on a consistent basis, the more able and attuned we will become to connecting disparate dots. And the more creative and innovative we will become as both individuals, and then eventually as organizations.

However, creating the space and time to actually engage in these divergent and creative thinking opportunities must be an intentional part of today’s professional learning. Skills that must be reengaged and brought back to the surface. Otherwise, in the end, we will continue to falter and fail towards becoming more creative and innovative as both individuals and organizations, if we never create an environment where this learning can actually be engaged.

And there is no better time to start than now…

If you don’t believe me, then just go ask a 5 year old.


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